The number of people working from home around the world has skyrocketed since the coronavirus outbreak — and for many it’s their first time. Adding to the challenge? When stay-at-home parenting and work-from-home struggles collide.
With schools closed, you might now be sharing your coworking space with “employees” who can’t dress, use the potty or count to 100 on their own. Maybe they just want to play dolls with you — like, all the time. With the kids underfoot all day, every day, the typical work week isn’t so typical anymore.
The good news: It gets easier. With some time to adjust, you can make this situation functional. Here are some essential tips for parents working from home with kids for the first time.
SET BOUNDARIES, FOR YOUR SANITY
Set — and keep— strict work hours. This helps manage expectations about your availability and helps separate your “work” life from “home” life, even if they’re under the same roof.
“Make clear guidelines and stick to them,” says writer Kari O’Driscoll, founder of The SELF Project, an organization that promotes mindfulness and relationship-building among teenagers and caregivers. “We have to set boundaries that will help us sustain our ability to work over the long haul, if necessary. Take some time to align your individual needs with your unique circumstances and decide priorities.”
For instance, if your family eats dinner at 5 p.m., make it mandatory to hop offline and join them. You could always log back on after bedtime to tie up loose ends. O’Driscoll also recommends creating a modified “out of office” email to let your coworkers know any non-urgent requests might be temporarily set aside.
“Being honest about your ability to do [the things others ask of you] will go a long way toward validating their needs without adding things to your life,” she says.
PRIORITIZE ESSENTIAL WORK
When it comes to day-to-day tasks, freelance writer Marianne Hayes puts out the big fires first and structures her day according to how she works best.
“I’m sharpest in the morning, so I do all my writing projects first,” she says. “Then I spend the afternoon doing any necessary research, phone calls and so on. I tackle the hardest stuff first so that my day gets easier and easier as the hours go by.”
She explains that kids tend to get more bored and crabbier as the day goes on, which increases the odds you’ll get pulled away from a task to end a tantrum.
“I can paint their nails or play a card game with them while I'm on a work call, but not while I'm doing active writing,” she says.
TREAT YOU PARTNER’S WORK DEMANDS LIKE YOURS
If your partner is also working from home, tag-team your deliverables and your childcare. Prioritizing each other’s work reduces squabbling, so lay out your needs first thing in the morning.
“I think spouses need to communicate with one another at the start of each day,” Hayes says. “Like, ‘Today I have an important call and a big deadline; can you take the kids from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m.? Then, I'll jump in so you can work.’” This allows both of you to tackle your essential work without interruption, and it promotes respect and equanimity in your relationship.
“While I was on deadline the other day, my husband took the baby and fed her while I drilled down,” she says. “Later, when he had an important conference call with his team, I took a break from work and brought the kids outside to play.”
YOU’RE BUSY, SO KEEP THE KIDS BUSY TOO
When you are both on deadline or have work that can’t be pushed off, the kids will need to be occupied — something that’s easier said than done, of course.
If you have young kids, former teacher and mom of four Lisa Collum, CEO of Top Score Writing, suggests transforming your home into four or five centers. “Your living room may be the blocks center; your dining room may by the coloring center,” she explains. Then, put a 15-minute time limit on each center and have the kids rotate through.
“You’re providing stimulation, different environments, you’re keeping their attention and they’re moving around,” she says.
For older kids, O’Driscoll recommends scavenger hunts, which can keep kids occupied as they collect things around the house and yard. She also suggests dusting off your old digital camera so they can take photos of all the things they find.
“Make a list that is fairly open: something smaller than your thumb, something squishy, something that comes in twos, something that makes noise when you touch it,” O’Driscoll advises.
You can also encourage school age and older kids to delve deeply into something that they’re passionate about and have them give a mock book report.
“Ask them to write stories or draw pictures about these things and, if they’re old enough, give them the task of developing a lesson for family members that they can share at the dinner table,” she says.
This is a weird time for everyone, and the added stress can lead to meltdowns — for kids and parents alike.
“If kids are used to having your attention when the family is home together, understand that they will be confused if they try to climb in your lap while you’re sitting at the computer and you say ‘No,’” O’Driscoll says.
Trying to split your attention between your computer and your kids (continuing to type while talking to them about why they’re crying, for example) isn’t helpful for anyone.
“Kids need you to make eye contact, listen closely and show them that you understand,” she adds. Needs will be resolved quicker if you can give them your undivided attention.
ADD JOY TO THE SCHEDULE
To keep yourself centered, use nighttime to wind down and to set your intentions for the following day.
“Before falling asleep, I like to read something inspirational to feed my soul a little before turning out the lights,” Hayes says. “I come to the next workday more refreshed and ready to go.”
O’Driscoll encourages parents to pick one joyful thing to do each day that isn't related to work or parenting. Feel the sunshine on your face by stepping outside for 10 minutes. Get up a little early to have your morning coffee in the quiet stillness. Sit with the dog for a little while. These small moments will rejuvenate you and help you to better weather any work or parenting stress.